Jonathan Weiner

American nonfiction writer, Professor of Journalism
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Jonathan Weiner (born 26th November 1953 in New York) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of non-fiction books on his biology observations, in particular evolution in the Galápagos Islands, genetics, and the environment.


The Beak of the Finch. New York: Vintage Books. 1994. LCC QL696.P246W45. ISBN 067973337X. 
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition, June 1995
  • Taken together, these new studies suggest that Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. He vastly underestimated the power of natural selection. Its action is neither rare nor slow. It leads to evolution daily and hourly, all around us, and we can watch.
    • Chapter 1, Daphne Major (p. 9)
  • Whether or not we choose to watch, evolution is shaping us all.
    • Chapter 1, Daphne Major (p. 16)
  • Evolution discloses a meaning in death, although the meaning is like some of the berries that Darwin tasted in the Galapagos, “acid & Austere.” There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Even Drought bears fruit. Even death is a seed.
    • Chapter 5, A Special Providence (p. 82)
  • For all species, including our own, the true figure of life is a perching bird, a passerine, alert and nervous in every part, ready to dart off in an instant. Life is always poised for flight. From a distance it looks still, silhouetted against the bright sky or the dark ground; but up close it is flitting this way and that, as if displaying to the world at every moment its perpetual readiness to take off in any of a thousand directions.
    • Chapter 7, Twenty-five Thousand Darwins (p. 112)
  • Geneticists will tell you that. Evolution is always happening. What they mean is that the genes of this generation are not precisely what they were the preceding generation. Nor will they be precisely the same in the next. And evolution is that change.
    • Chapter 9, Creation by Variation (p. 126)
  • We are doing what the dinosaurs did before us, only faster. We bring strangers together to make strange bedfellows, and we remake the beds they lie in, all at once.
    • Chapter 17, The Stranger’s Power (p. 244)
  • “Our only real competition for domination of the planet remains the viruses,” the microbiologist Joshua Lederberg once said. “The survival of humanity,” he added, “is not preordained.”
    • Chapter 18, The Resistance Movement (p. 262)
  • What we don’t understand on either front is that the more pressure we put on our pests, the more we cause them to evolve around the pressure. The pressure is evolutionary pressure; what we fail to understand is evolution itself.
    • Chapter 18, The Resistance Movement (p. 265)
  • All times seem special to those who live in them.
    • Chapter 19, A Partner in the Process (p. 276)
  • The rapid accumulation of change is not always progress, and forward motion is not always an advance.
    • Chapter 20, The Metaphysical Crossbeak (p. 289)
Time, Love, Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1999. LCC QH457.W43. ISBN 0679444351. 
All page numbers from hardcover first edition
  • All three spoke in the kind of down-home, common-as-flies style that is the lingua franca of great scientists, conveying a contempt for pretension, a contempt for cant, a delight in common sense, combined with uncommon curiosity about what is really there.
    • Chapter 2, “The White-Eyed Fly” (p. 24)
  • One test of a true clock is its ability to keep time through a wide range of temperatures. A clock that speeds up in hot weather and slows down in cold weather is not a clock, although it may make a good thermometer.
    • Chapter 8, “First Time” (p. 105)
  • With the discovery of the clock gene, the sense of time, mysterious for so many centuries, was no longer a mystery that could be observed only from the outside. Now it could be explored as a mechanism from the inside. The discovery implied that behavior itself could now be charted and mapped as precisely as any other aspect of inheritance. Qualities that people had always thought of as somehow floating above the body, apart from the body, as if they belonged to the realm of the spirit and not of the flesh, as if they were supernatural, might be mapped right alongside qualities as mundane as eye pigment.
    • Chapter 8, “First Time” (p. 110)
  • We do not lift a finger without three kinds of information: the information we are getting from our senses at that moment; the information we have gotten from our senses in the past; and the information our ancestors have acquired since life began on Earth—that is, the information that is represented by genes themselves. Evolution is learning. Species store learning in chromosomes the way individuals store learning in their brains and societies store learning in books.
    • Chapter 10, “First Memory” (p. 132)
  • Some people seem to think that behavior is behavior only when it is a mystery, Hall continued. But once any piece of behavior is understood at the molecular level, it all comes down to metabolism, whether we are talking about the way a weaver ant folds a leaf, a weaverbird weaves a hanging nest, a human being learns and speaks Swahili, or a fly rises with the dawn and settles down at dusk. “Benzer was once subjected, in my earshot,” Hall said, “to some dumb question like ‘Is that the mind or the brain?’ But every aspect of mind and brain is ultimately metabolism! What do we think? Some kind of electric aura hovers around our heads?” We still seem to want something outside the mechanism, Hall said, some deus ex machina to save us from the clockwork that we have been exploring above and inside our heads for the last several centuries. It is now time for us to accept that behavior is as much a part of the material world as the stars above us and the atoms inside us. All behavior turns on molecular clockwork, Hall said, yet all behavior is fascinating.
    • Chapter 12, “Cloning an Instinct” (pp. 161-162)
  • The pamphlet teaches the skills that skills that Benzer’s former labmates would now need to learn, including propaganda, “that branch of lying which consists in very nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies.”
    • Chapter 13, “Reading an Instinct” (p. 167)
  • “Ethicists are a mixed lot,” he says, “generally not worrying about their own problems, just somebody else’s problems.”
    • Chapter 13, “Reading an Instinct” (p. 169)
  • Philosophers used to ask whether we are born with or invent our sense of time. Now we know that we have clocks woven into every one of our cells. Philosophers also used to ask how we know that the sun will rise tomorrow. In a sense we have that answer built into us, too. The clock is a kind of orrery in the heart of every one of our cells, revolving to help us keep time with our world, a model of the cosmos inside our heads that cycles whether we are in or out of sight of the sun. The revolution of the stars and the seasons is written in the turns of our DNA.
    • Chapter 15, “The Lord’s Masterpiece” (p. 193)
  • Molecular biology has no history for the young scientist,” one of the old guard declared not long ago.
    Sydney Brenner qualified that: “I hold the somewhat weaker view that history does exist for the young, but is divided into two epochs: the past two years, and everything that went before.”
    • Chapter 19, “Pickett’s Charge” (pp. 241-242)
  • People who don’t believe in relativity don’t understand relativity. People who don’t believe in evolution don’t understand evolution. And it’s the same with genetics. And I think some people are just reluctant to let their imaginations run.
    My feeling is that molecular biologists are going to move into psychology and take over the field. I think that’s the way psychology is going to be rejuvenated.
    • Chapter 19, “Pickett’s Charge” (p. 243)
  • Watson sighs. “So in that sense you don’t have a free will. Your reactions are programmed. You know, you start asking the difference,” he says with a nod toward the Fly Room next door. “What free will is there in Drosophila? You put the question of the free will of a fly. And what’s really different about the fly’s brain from ours—which gives us free will?
    “I’m sure once we know how the brain works, we’ll no longer talk about free will in the Jesuit sense. It will cease to be, you know—” Freedom will cease to be a mystery requiring Jesuitical debate; it will cease to be a theological or philosophical question. “It will just be how the brain works. You will describe how the brain works. You won’t use the words ‘free will’; you know, you’ll understand…. Because you’re asking, how does the brain work?” He says in a softer voice. “That’s what you’re really asking.” The bell in the double-helical bell tower outside his office window begins to toll. “And that’s really the ultimate question to ask,” he says.
    • Chapter 19, “Pickett’s Charge” (pp. 251-252)
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